The Rays knew from past encounters and playoff highlights how good Max Scherzer could be, even if his stats this season didn’t show it. If they needed a reminder, they could listen to Mike Brosseau tell tales from workouts in the West Palm Beach area during the pandemic shutdown, where the Nationals ace was throwing batting practice with Game 7 intensity.
The Rays got to see enough for themselves Monday night, as Scherzer shut down the chances they had and shut them out for the first seven innings in a 6-1 loss.
“That’s him,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I’ve seen him for many years now, we all have. He’s been around for a long time. Going back to with the Tigers, once he settles in, he gets really, really tough. Whether it’s command, whether it’s some extra velocity. There’s a reason why he’s going to be going to the Hall of Fame one day whenever he decides to not pitch anymore.’'
The night in Washington wasn’t all bad for the Rays, who saw their American League-leading record drop to 28-14 and their East Division lead cut to 4½ by the Blue Jays, who beat the skidding and third-place Yankees 12-7.
Charlie Morton’s second start since a three-plus week stint on the injured list went okay overall. He allowed three runs but got through five innings and built his pitch count to 57, which allows him to extend further in his next outing.
And Randy Arozarena continued his power show, coming off the bench to hit his fourth home run in his seven games since his callup.
As much praise as the Rays heaped on Scherzer, who improved to 4-2, 3.40, they were frustrated with their inability to convert early opportunities.
In each of the first three innings they got runners to second base with one out, and each time they failed to do anything with it, hitting only one ball out of the infield off Scherzer.
“He’s obviously pretty special out there,” infielder Joey Wendle said of the three-time Cy Young Award winner. “We’ve seen that for a number of years, and it seems like when a situation gets bigger, he kind of buckles down a little bit.”
In the first inning, the Rays got one-out singles by Brandon Lowe, snapping his career-worst 0-for-22 streak, and Wendle, but Ji-Man Choi popped out and Willy Adames struck out.
In the second, Kevin Kiermaier doubled and Nate Lowe walked with one out, but Kevan Smith struck out and Austin Meadows — in what was probably the team’s best chance — just missed hitting a 95 mph fastball and flied out to center.
In the third, Wendle singled with one out and stole second, but Choi and Adames popped out.
“I think at times we could have been a little bit more patient and a little better choosing our pitches against him,” Wendle said. “He’s not going to give you many (opportunities). A guy like that in terms of an at-bat, you’re looking to get him early in the count, and in terms of the game, you’re looking to kind of jump on every opportunity you can, that you have. …
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“We weren’t able to capitalize tonight. That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with.”
They Rays had a few other chances but with similar results. Kiermaier singled with one out in the fourth but was forced at second. Smith doubled with two outs in the seventh, but Meadows struck out. In Scherzer’s seven innings, the Rays were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
There was one more brief opportunity in the ninth, down five with two outs, when they loaded the bases. But Daniel Hudson came on to strike out Arozarena for his eighth save.
The encouraging part for the Rays was Morton’s work on the mound. After making leadoff hitter Adam Eaton look foolish on a kind-of-swing at strike three to start a quick first, Morton had a little bit of an issue in the second — though with a fly ball that got over Kiermaier’s head in center — and somewhat of a mess in the third, allowing two runs.
Part of the problem was in the delivery and thus the shape of his curveball, which he later adjusted after talking with Smith and pitching coach Kyle Snyder. The other was having to work out of the stretch after allowing a leadoff double.
“I think there was a stark difference between my stuff out of the windup and stuff out of the stretch,” Morton said. “They got me out of the stretch early in the third and basically I felt like I could have done a lot better job in my delivery. I felt like I could have done a better job in my execution. … I think that’s where (Monday) really the issues surfaced.”
Otherwise, the right-hander was pleased with what he did, allowing three runs on four hits with one walk and three strikeouts, and mostly how he did it. “All in all, I think there were some pretty good pitches thrown,” he said. “It was just in that third.”
Cash had a much more positive take.
“I though Charlie was really good,” he said. “Looking at the outing, we’d probably like to have two two-strike breaking balls back, one to (Trea) Turner (an RBI single), one to (Kurt) Suzuki (an RBI double). They weren’t necessarily that bad of pitches, just want to get them a little lower to get them to see if we can get them to expand (their strike zone) and maybe miss. But other than that, everything looked really, really good. Very encouraged with his outing.”